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How Midnight Snacking Affects Your Sleep

January 31, 2017

“Midnight” snacking is simple. Midday and dinner less so.

It’s after midnight. You’ve melted out of the bedroom like Christian Bale in Batman; you’ve dodged all the kids’ toys like Sean Connery in The Rock and now you’ve repelled into the kitchen like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. You’ve made it. The cold light of the fridge welcomes you. Now the real challenge: do you want the cold pizza, the left-over cordon-bleu or the last piece of cake?

Psychologists and dieticians warn that regulating yourself too strictly during the day may result in a pendulum effect. So when your dieting regimen has taken its toll and your energy levels are low, your self-control wanes and your cravings return bigger and meaner than before. Which is why, even when you’re not hungry, you’re much more prone to binge eating and impulsive eating in the dead of night: when the diet has gone to bed and the craving is awake.

There are whole pages and articles devoted to how midnight snacking affects your weight, your mood and your energy levels. But how does it affect your sleep? The truth is that “midnight” snacking is a bit of a misnomer. The real damage to your sleep is done from up to four hours before you go to bed. For example, a steak dinner is rich not only in protein but also in fat. Fat takes an inordinately long time to digest and digesting food takes energy, which means burning calories, which means an increase in body temperature when you’re supposed to be cooling down for sleep. In other words, it ends up keeping you awake because your body refuses to shut down.

Now don’t blame the protein. In fact, a series of small studies have suggested that a protein shake as close as thirty minutes before bedtime can be very beneficial for muscle gain and recovery.

But do blame spicy foods, which may similarly stoke your metabolism to higher speeds and temperatures and leave you sleepless. And it’s not just the usual suspects keeping you from restful sleep either. So, for example, broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are chock full of the sleep regulating amino acid, tryptophan. Sounds great right? Except that if you eat it too close to bedtime, all that insoluble fibre keeps your digestion up, working overtime, and you along with it.

The midnight snacks (emphasis on “midnight”) which really interfere with sleep are the ones that are borderline- or camouflaged stimulants and take next to no time to kick in. Now we’re not talking about caffeine and nicotine. If you don’t already know those two are outright stimulants and going to keep you up then you’ve wasted your time reading this far and you should probably rather start looking for a night-shift job. A prime example of a camouflaged stimulant is chocolate. Chocolate (even dark chocolate) contains caffeine and is going to keep you up. Sorry about that.

If you’re craving something sweet, take honey, which contains tryptophan. Want something hot? Add your honey to milk, which contains (you guessed it) tryptophan. Some simple carbs won’t do any harm either (like bread or crackers) as long as you steer clear of the fats and fibres. Limit yourself to between a hundred and two hundred calories worth of snacking. But the most sure-fire way to make sure you don’t snack on something you’re going to lie awake regretting? Don’t let the snack in the house.  You can’t eat it if it isn’t there.

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